- - Sunday, March 13, 2016

BUENOS AIRES — During his eight years as president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva managed to turn his country into a poster child of developing economies and himself into a towering figure of the left admired at home and respected in Washington, the most consequential and well-known Latin American politician of his generation.

But five years after handing over power to his protegee Dilma Rousseff, the 70-year-old former labor leader finds himself the most prominent casualty of a staggering economic and political crisis that is ripping apart Brazil and threatening the social stability hailed as the trademark achievement of his 2003-2011 presidency.

After 10 days of public humiliation that began with federal police raiding his home and culminated in the subsequent filing of corruption charges, Mr. da Silva’s fate now hinges on Sao Paulo Judge Maria Priscilla Ernandes Veiga Oliveira, who is set to rule this week on prosecutors’ request to send the former president to jail.

The once-revered “Lula” has been so battered by the scandal that anti-government demonstrators on Sunday paraded large inflatable dolls of the former president dressed in striped prison garb.

“We need to get rid of Dilma, the Workers’ Party, the whole lot. It’s not their time anymore,” Rio de Janeiro resident Maria do Carmo, 73, told the Reuters news agency.

In the emerging public relations battle over Mr. da Silva’s political legacy, a smaller crowd of supporters gathered Sunday outside his apartment.

In their scathing indictment centered on a beachfront apartment that investigators say the former president never acknowledged owning, the prosecutors accused Mr. da Silva of money laundering and misrepresentation, crimes that can carry prison terms of up to 10 years. Although he is hardly the first former Latin American statesman to face a corruption probe, his status as trailblazer of the continent’s left means that the case has transfixed the political scene from Buenos Aires to Mexico City.

Prosecutors, nevertheless, have in their filing urged Judge Veiga Oliveira — known as a tough, law-and-order criminal court veteran — to order Mr. da Silva’s capture because he threatened public order by “failing to respect the [judiciary], especially once investigations turned against him.”

All too aware of the former president’s legacy and his still-potent popularity with Brazil’s lower classes, they pointedly contrasted Mr. da Silva’s privileges with everyday Brazilians’ struggles in what economists have dubbed the country’s deepest recession in more than a century.

“While thousands of families saw themselves hurt — deprived of the dream of their own homes in spite of regular payments — the [defendant was] taken care of with a triplex,” the prosecutors wrote as they detailed extravagant modifications made to the luxury apartment to further increase the presidential family’s “well-being.”

Mr. da Silva has strongly denied all charges of corruption, and the tone of the indictment against him may back critics’ charges that the prosecution is a political witch hunt meant to further destabilize the ruling Worker’s Party, said Marta da Silva Arretche, who teaches political science at the University of Sao Paulo.

The suspected payoffs in the da Silva case pale in comparison with the offshore holdings and art collections discovered with other defendants in the so-called Lava Jato — Car Wash — scandal, which centers on corruption at the state-owned Petrobras oil company and has tainted much of Brazil’s political class, including Ms. Rousseff.

In the former president’s case, “there are no mysterious accounts,” the political scientist said. “There is no evidence of large-scale enrichment.” Particularly if he ends up behind bars, Mr. da Silva will likely capitalize on the prosecutors’ “exaggerated” course to portray himself as a victim.

“I believe this measure to be of extremely high political risk,” she said. “With this, he has the basis for a political shake-up.”

Defiant Rousseff

But the shake-up many Brazilians were hoping for — the resignation of the deeply unpopular Ms. Rousseff — again dissipated last week after the president unequivocally denied reports that Mr. da Silva’s possible arrest might serve as the final straw to push her out of office.

“Do you think that I look like I’m weary, that I have the temperament of being weary?” Ms. Rousseff asked defiantly at a news conference Friday.

“I was held and tortured for my convictions,” she added, referencing her time as a guerrilla during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. “I’m not weary toward anything. I don’t have this attitude toward life, and I believe that’s why I represent the Brazilian people.”

Still, the embattled president’s belligerence did not keep hundreds of thousands of citizens from again demanding her ouster Sunday in the latest set of mass rallies in major cities across the country.

In Sao Paulo, Mr. da Silva’s backers were forced to guard his political foundation, recently defaced with a graffiti reading “Luladrao” — a wordplay combining his name with the Portuguese term for “thief.”

Ironically, though, even in the midst of what could be the most trying week of Mr. da Silva’s political life, some believe the almost legendary figure remains the only one capable of turning around Brazil’s deep institutional crisis.

“There is no doubt that Dilma [Rousseff] is finished,” Eliane Cantanhede, a columnist for the influential O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, wrote Sunday. “But could it be that Lula [da Silva] is in [a position] to turn around the game? To regain Congress’ respect, entrepreneurs’ confidence, the admiration of the major part of the population [to] make fiscal cuts [and] save the government, his own skin and, ultimately, the country?”

The three pillars of Mr. da Silva’s influence — his iconic image, his power base in the Workers’ Party and his network of connections as a former head of state — do, in fact, remain in place, Ms. Arretche said. And though the image of a jailed Mr. da Silva would be momentous, in the long run, the former president will undoubtedly remain a force.

“Lula [da Silva‘s] political figure will endure because he is a very important symbol,” she said. “He’s part of Brazil’s history. There’s no way to get rid of him.”

A defiant Mr. da Silva has vowed to use the deep populist well of support he still enjoys as his legal battle unfolds.

Emerging after his brief detention this month, he vowed, “If they want to defeat me, they will have to face me in the streets.”

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